Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defends the Senate immigration bill.
HH: Pleased to welcome now to the Hugh Hewitt Show Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. Secretary Chertoff, thanks for joining us. I appreciate your service, and coming on today.
MC: I’m happy to be on, Hugh.
HH: Mr. Secretary, I want to start with a common assumption, and see if we share this as we talk about this bill. It’s my assumption that some jihadists have entered this country illegally since 9/11, and that many more would like to. Do you share that assumption?
MC: Well, my assumption is that there are people in the country who are sympathetic to al Qaeda, whether they are native born and bred Americans, like Adam Gadahn, and people of that ilk, or people who came in legally as children, that’s hard to tell. I mean, if we look at the cases we’ve dealt with over the past several years, we’ve had both types, people who have immigrated in, and people who were born here and converted.
HH: But I’m going to those who entered illegally. Do you believe that some of these special interest aliens, as the San Antonio Express News has been calling them, have entered the country in the last few years?
MC: I think back over time, we’ve had, yes, special interest aliens, or aliens from special interest countries who have entered, and some of those may very well be sympathetic to terrorist groups.
HH: And so, the new draft law that we’re talking about calls for millions and millions of background checks and interviews of would-be Z visa holders, which would include that, however many there are, of sympathizers. Who’s going to conduct these millions of background interviews?
MC: Well, let me begin, Hugh, by making this point. Right now, if someone is in the country illegally, and is sympathetic to terrorists, we’re going to have to hunt for them while they’re out hiding out. So the question is does this proposed bill make it easier for us, and the answer to that is yes, because by bringing into a regulated, visible system people who can pass a background check because we don’t have an indication that they’re a terrorist, it allows us to focus on those people who are not going to come forward, who are probably the people where the danger lies.
HH: But if a jihadi has a good cover, and comes forward and gets the kind of visa, Z visa, doesn’t that assist them in their movement around the country?
MC: Well, I mean, the problem with that argument is it applies to anybody who was able to come in under false pretenses. I mean, people come in with student visas, people come in with business visas. These are all people who we scrub and check in the same way that we would check the Z visa holders. There’s no guarantee that someone with a very good cover isn’t going to get by us, but the point is, if someone does have a good cover, there are a lot of ways they can get a visa. I think this program actually would reduce vulnerability, because it limits, it brings most of the people who we don’t need to worry about into a visible system, so we can hunt for the people we do worry about.
HH: We’ll come back to that in a second, but you mentioned the background scrub. Who’s going to do that, the millions of background checks and the millions of interviews?
MC: Well, we have the tools that we use with respect to anybody who wants to come into the country, the 80 million people who come in every year by air, and the hundreds of millions who come in across our land borders legally on tourist visas. We use our watch lists. One of the things that’s occurring as we collect fingerprints overseas is we’ll be able to run fingerprints for anybody who applies for a visa against latent fingerprints that we pick up in battlefields and safe houses all around the world. So that’s going to give us, and that’s just the fingerprint check. That’s an automated process. That’s going to give us a real opportunity to catch somebody who’s in the country, however they want to come in or have gotten in, that we’ve picked up fingerprints for on any of the operational activities we’ve conducted overseas.
HH: I know it’s a little more prosaic what I’m getting to, Mr. Secretary, which is you’ve got 12 million applications.
HH: Who’s physically going to pick them up and handle them? Which department’s going to do that?
MC: We’re going to use…DHS will collect the applications, collect the fingerprints. The process of background checking then will occur in cooperation with the FBI and its databases, our databases, and all the databases that are currently kept in the terrorist screening center.
HH: And have you allocated staff time? I mean, an 11 million, if it’s on the low end, 12 million investigations, 12 million interviews, have you got an analysis of where that’s going to funnel to, and who’s actually going to do that work, because from my time in the government as deputy director of OPM running the securities investigation, it takes days to do a decent investigation, and this is all going to hit at once. I don’t know where the people are.
MC: Well, it’s not going to hit at once. It will hit over a period of time, because there will be an enrollment period. And as I know you know, Hugh, obviously, we’re not going to be doing background checks of the kind that you do for a top security clearance. What we’re going to be doing is running fingerprints and names against various databases, which is a process we currently use, for example, in screening people who get visas to come into the country for all kinds of purposes. So we already do millions of these through our existing processes. There’s no question we’re going to need money to increase the staff and the capability for these 12 million. But I want to put it in perspective by saying that we process 80 million air travelers every year coming through our airports, so we already deal with a very large volume of people that we are screening to let them come into the country legally.
HH: Now the law does not make a distinction, does it, Mr. Secretary, between Mexican and Central American immigrants on the one hand, and immigrants of interest from countries with jihadist networks, does it?
MC: That’s correct. I mean, the law will apply to people who are here in the country, whatever their ethnic background or origin.
HH: And so, if there are, I’m going back to my original set of questions, if there are good cover jihadis, terrorists, sympathizers in the country illegally that you don’t pick up through your watch lists or your fingerprints, because they’re good, they’re going to be legitimized under this process, correct?
MC: Well, I think, Hugh, I guess I have to come back to this point. If there’s somebody who’s got a good enough cover to beat the system with respect to Z visas, they’re also going to have had a good enough cover to come in through our visa waiver program with Western Europe, or to beat the visa system with respect to Asia. I mean, in some ways what you’re asking me is, is there a foolproof method to keep a terrorist out? And the answer to that is quite obviously no.
HH: Well, the San Antonio Express News this week said that there have been 5,700 arrests since 2001 of special interest immigrants from countries of concern, meaning those with jihadi networks. They estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 other illegal immigrants from those countries in the country. I’m not worried about people who enter legally. I’m worried about those who’ve come in, in massive numbers…I mean, do you agree with those numbers, Mr. Secretary?
MC: I don’t have…I can’t verify those numbers. I don’t know where the paper got them from. I want to underscore a couple of things that which I think are kind of embedded in your discussion, which might cause people to be a little confused. First of all, a special interest country merely means a country where we’ve previously found training camps or evidence of training activity, or really kind of core terrorist behavior. But I also have to point out if you simply open a newspaper, that we are increasingly seeing jihadi terrorist behavior in places like Great Britain, Western Europe, countries that you wouldn’t normally think of as countries where we have to fear the possibility of al Qaeda linked individuals. So I think trying to focus on certain countries as if that’s the way to close the vulnerability is to not recognize that the terrorists are quite consciously seeking to infiltrate, using people that don’t match that profile…
HH: I understand…
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HH: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. We’ve got just a few minutes left, and we’ll get you back, we hope, soon. Before we go back to security issues, how may new miles, new miles of double fencing have been constructed on the border since Congress passed the bill last year authorizing the additional 800 miles, Mr. Secretary?
MC: We’re going to have 150 miles…first of all, there’s 700 miles, but we’re going to have 150 miles of what we call pedestrian fence, meaning fence that keeps people on foot out, not just vehicles, by the end of September.
HH: Is that all new?
MC: That’s cumulative. That’s everything we have, total.
HH: And how many…
MC: Congress authorized approximately 700 total miles of fence, pedestrian fence.
HH: And how many miles of new fencing since that bill passed have been put up?
MC: We will have 150 miles by the end of September.
HH: I know that, but I’ve been getting different reports.
MC: Yeah, Hugh, here’s what I’m going to tell you. When you build fence, you don’t build mile by mile. What you do is you take a strip of miles, for example, what we’re doing at the Barry Goldwater Range. We’ve got about 35 miles we’re building. But we don’t build one mile at a time. We survey it, we grade it, we move the equipment in, we drive the pilings in, and then the fence, that 35 mile stretch of fence will get done. For example, that will be one of the stretches that gets done by the end of September. Right now, there’s no fence there.
HH: But of the 150, in September, how many of those will…
MC: What I’m saying to you is we’re underway now doing about 75 miles of “new fence.” But it is being built from the ground up.
MC: It’s not being built mile by mile.
HH: Sure. And is any of it finished?
MC: Well, some parts of it are finished, but here’s the piece, the kind of misunderstanding here. Nobody in their right mind builds a mile of fence, start to finish, and then starts the next mile.
HH: Oh, sure. I agree with that completely.
MC: It’s like building a brick wall. You start from the ground up. Very few miles are completely done.
HH: We understand that, but Mr. Secretary, people doubt that the Department is committed to the fence construction. What I hear you saying is that you’ve got 75 miles of new fencing under construction, and that’s all.
MC: Correct. Now…and then after this 75 miles is done, we are on track to get 370 miles of fencing completed by the end of calendar year 2008.
HH: Is there a map available of where those are? Because MSNBC reported yesterday the Department still didn’t know where they were going to put the fence.
MC: That’s…there is…there are very detailed maps with coordinates that I actually review ever couple of weeks, that lay down exactly where that fence is being built, Barry Goldwater Range in Arizona being 35 miles, and there are other increments, or other parts of fence being built. I’ve personally witnessed fence being built out at the border in Yuma area, at the border between California and Arizona. So I don’t know whether MSNBC’s capable of finding it, but I can tell you there are very specific mile by mile lay downs of fence being built as we speak.
HH: Okay, I want to go back to security. The San Antonio Express News reported that Tamil Tigers had actually entered this country, and had not been apprehended. Do you have information to corroborate that?
MC: I do not have information to corroborate that, and Hugh, let me come back to this point, because I don’t want your listeners to miss this. You’re really asking me the question whether bringing people who are currently here illegally and moving around freely, bringing them into a regulated system is going to enhance our security or degrade it. And I’m going to tell you why it’s going to enhance it, because the people who come into that system are going to have their fingerprints run. And if we have their fingerprints, not only based on their criminal case, but based on fingerprints we’ve picked up in battlefields or overseas, where people are training, or building bombs, we’re going to catch them, because the fingerprint is probably the best piece of forensic evidence to apprehend somebody.
HH: But it’s unfair to you, because you’re going to be gone, but what I’m going to tell my listeners afterwards is that if they defraud the fingerprint process, or the 11 million applications overwhelm the system, or they’re very, very clean, that you’re not going to catch them, but you are going to credential them, and that concerns me. And last question, why treat them the same, non-Spanish, non-English speakers, as the Spanish and English speakers? Why not have a separate category?
MC: I’ve got a bunch of English speakers who are on trial in Britain for threatening to blow up subways.
HH: I know that, but…
MC: So I’ve got to tell you, your assumption that people from certain countries are where the danger is, and people from other countries are not, is exactly what the terrorists quite deliberately count on when they recruit the people that have actually been convicted of committing terrorist acts. So I don’t want to play their game. I want to use all of the ability we have to put everybody under the microscope, to make sure we don’t have terrorists coming into this country.
HH: Well, thanks for your time, Mr. Secretary. I will…the invitation is open, three hours at a time, every day, because I’m just not persuaded, but I would love to be, because I want to do regularization. I hope you’ll come back soon. Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security.
End of interview.